Travelling on the Trans-Siberian

Just as Russia produces the longest, most epic novels, so it produces the longest, most epic railway journeys. None is more famed than the Trans-Siberian, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Less well known is that the name in fact refers to not one but a network of lines stretching east from Moscow. All pass the Urals and the cities of Yekaterinburg and Tomsk, but divide into separate routes around Lake Baikal. By far the most popular is the Trans-Mongolian, which swings south from Baikal to Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar, crossing the Gobi Desert and terminating in Beijing (seven days). A more unusual way to Beijing is the older Manchurian Railway, which reaches the Chinese capital on a dog-leg route taking in the city of Harbin, famous for its ice-sculpting festival (seven days). Few tourists travel the original Trans-Siberian route (up to eight days). This stays entirely in Russia and terminates by the Pacifc at Vladivostok. And the least visited of all is the BAM (up to four days), a Soviet-built branch line that strikes north into some of Russia’s remotest territory. Russian trains are comfortable without being luxurious, and are stifingly warm in winter. Carriages are divided between 1st-class two-berth cabins, 2nd-class four-berth cabins and platskartny – best described as a dormitory on rails. All carriages have a hot-water tap and an attendant, aka the provodnitsa: formidable characters who generally speak little English. It’s possible to book direct with Russian Railways (rzd.ru), though it’s often easier to go through an agent who can organise visas for three countries, accommodation and tickets. Arranging stopovers, in particular, can make for a logistical challenge. Real Russia (realrussia.co.uk) and Intourist (intourist.com) are among the specialists who can help. Expect to pay £400–£550 for a 2nd class bunk from Moscow–Beijing, depending on the season and the type of train (fast or slow).

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